Can a loose cannon have a strategy?

16 March 2024

Donald Trump is back again, hence this blog is back again, with minor editing from the 2018 version, to bring what little has changed up to date.

Can a loose cannon have a strategy? Sure, once we realize that we use the word strategy in a way that we never define it.

Strategy may be defined by intention, but it is realized in action.  An intended strategy looks ahead, as some sort of plan or vision into the future, whether or not it will actually be realized. A realized strategy looks back, to some pattern in action, namely consistency in actual behavior, whether or not it was intended. A company, for example, might intend to go up-market with higher prices, but then get into a price war and keep cutting prices, and this becomes its realized strategy.1

How about Donald Trump? While president, with regard to migrants and refugees, he certainly had a strategy, intended as well as partly realized: keep them out and get them out. In other words, his actions were consistent with his stated intentions. With regard to much else, however, by the dictionary definition of strategy, as intended, Trump was a loose cannon, shooting off his mouth in all directions, frequently contradicting himself. Where’s the intended strategy in that?

As for realized strategy, a host of Trump’s actions in office spoke louder than his words, and differently, in fact, some of them rather consistently. Consider the following actions: picking fights with established allies while cozying up to autocrats; challenging existing trade agreements and long-standing alliances; repeatedly attacking the FBI, the Justice Department, and the intelligence agencies; emasculating the Department of State by leaving so many posts unfilled while proposing drastic reductions in its budget; and championing tax cuts that could weaken the government.

Pattern may be in the eyes of the beholder, but it is tough not to behold one here, however outrageous it may seem: Donald Trump appeared to be taking down the government of the United States of America. This was not the usual neo-con agenda of less government, more like a concerted attack on government itself.

Why would he, as president of the United States, do such a thing? In his own terms, what was in it for Donald Trump? Maybe more to the point, what was in store for Donald Trump if he didn’t do this? To answer these questions, please understand that realized strategy can be driven by the force of circumstance, even by the intentions of some other person able to exercise power over that actor.

Who might have been able to do that? The answer seems obvious enough. Were Vladimir Putin the president of the United States instead of Donald Trump, could he have been doing any better for Russia? “Trade wars are good,” said Donald Trump. Sure, for Putin’s Russia. Could Donald Trump’s realized strategy for America have been the execution of Vladimir Putin’s intended strategy for America?

The Mueller Inquiry indicated that the Russians were determined to see Donald Trump elected. But why would they want a loose cannon in the White House, such an obvious threat to their security? Because, in Putin’s pocket, Trump proved to have been, not a loose cannon at all, but a straight shooter—consistently in the direction of Russian interests.

What might Putin have had on Trump to evoke such obedience? Some revealing video shot in a hotel room, perhaps? Undisclosed evidence that Russia colluded to get Trump elected? The capacity to call in loans that would have bankrupted Trump’s businesses? Regardless of the reason, what mattered was what Trump did. What mattered more was the threat this posed to the security of all of us.

What matters now is that Trump could be on his way back into office. Re-elected, he would likely hand Ukraine to Putin on a silver platter. And then, what would happen with NATO? Expect anything from this looser and looser cannon. Who’s to stop him? Maybe Putin, to save Russia from a humiliated Trump who finally points the cannon his way?

© Henry Mintzberg 2024, 2018, with a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 4.0 International License. i.e., no rights reserved.

I wrote at the end of the 2018 version: “Following on this, I am preparing an article entitled "Donald Trump is not the problem." It turned out to be five blogs in all, one of which might follow, likewise updated. 


1I have written more extensively on this. See an earlier blog, also Of Strategies, deliberate and emergent, and the full version in Tracking Strategies.